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New Mexico Renewable Energy Development Requires Reliable but Environmentally Benign Transmission Corridors
The Land of Enchantment may be best known for its breathtaking vistas, scenic mesas and majestic sky islands, but New Mexico may also have the greatest promise for renewable energy of any state with plentiful solar, wind and geothermal resources. A handful of wind and solar projects have been completed, with more in various stages of planning and construction. One critical factor limiting full-scale energy development in NM is the lack of suitable transmission to distribute electricity to urban markets.
Several recent government actions have been critical in advancing development of transmission in the state. In 2009, the state Legislature created the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA) and subsequently then-Gov. Richardson appointed a Statewide Electricity Planning Taskforce to provide recommendations “regarding opportunities and steps to enhance the statewide electricity transmission grid.” The resulting planning report released in 2010 recommended that RETA assume the state’s role in siting transmission corridors.
In collaboration with RETA, Los Alamos National Laboratory initiated a study to assess the economic benefits of developing an enhanced transmission system in NM. In one scenario, the study evaluated the completion of 841 miles of transmission by the year 2030 with export of 1,302 megawatts from the Four Corners hub. The resulting infrastructure would create an estimated 745 permanent jobs and generate $78,566,700 in tax revenue. NM’s failure to build sufficient transmission would result in the loss of further tax revenue and well-paying jobs produced by wind- and solar development.
Support for development of renewable energy is strong throughout the West. According to polling results in the State of the Rockies Conservation Report covering five western states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Montana), 67 percent of respondents agreed that increasing development of renewable energy sources would create jobs, and 70 percent backed the idea of renewable energy replacing coal. Even more revealing is the overwhelming endorsement for protection of the environment. In the same report, 84 percent of voters agreed that despite the shortfalls in state budgets, funding should be allocated to protect our land, water and wildlife.
Which gets us back to RETA. The agency was created by Senate Memorial 44, which included language that required them to secure mapping of wildlife and other environmentally sensitive areas in conjunction with the planning and building of new transmission projects. The accompanying legislative report proposes that RETA pursue the development of a statewide environmental site assessment with funding solicited from grant opportunities. The state policymakers understood that full development of an intrastate transmission collector system would come with an environmental cost, but one that could be minimized with proper preparation and planning.
RETA has developed a map showing the proposed transmission corridors and right-of-ways crisscrossing the state. Resource agencies and environmental groups have reviewed the map to identify mostly public lands that are thought to contain sensitive habitat, and the USGS Land Stewardship Data has been used to further designate areas of conservation, wilderness and archaeological value. But the landscape scale used to generate such a map cannot accurately predict where sensitive resources occur or where animals move through the landscape. No statewide environmental assessment has been completed, nor have wildlife corridors been mapped.
There is limited evidence suggesting that transmission development can have adverse indirect impacts on rare species such as greater and Gunnison’s sage grouse and lesser prairie chickens through habitat fragmentation and increased predation. Mortality of raptors, grouse, cranes and other birds has been documented to occur by collision or electrocution, although these impacts can be avoided or minimized by implementing guidelines published by the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee or the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Powerline construction can create barriers to movement by grouse and less mobile amphibians and reptiles, but assessing the effect on habitat permeability is problematic without sufficient data on sensitive wildlife areas or movement of wildlife across the landscape. In addition, degree of disturbance may vary by type of habitat, being greater in the high elevation forests of northern NM, but less so in the patchy vegetation of the Chihuahuan Desert. The NM Wind and Wildlife Collaborative (NMWWC), comprised of industry and environmental groups, spent two years developing best management practices (BMPs) for wind- and transmission development pertaining to the potential impacts to 12 wildlife species or habitat issues, including fragmentation. One theme that resonated throughout the NMWWC process was the lack of data to develop sensible BMPs that would adequately advise the industry on how to minimize development or operational impacts.
The Crucial Habitat Analysis Tool currently being developed by Natural Heritage New Mexico (UNM) with support from the NM Department of Game and Fish is intended to help guide regional management and planning, primarily in preparation for energy development. The model designates crucial habitat based on square-mile hexagons evaluated for wildlife occurrences, modeled habitat, landscape condition and corridor metrics. However, like most models developed at this coarse scale, no field verification is planned. Field data collection, such as the effort underway in at least one identified corridor, the Galisteo Wildway, is essential to confirm model predictions. Unfortunately, this level of calibration is rare, and the result may be a product that does a disservice to both the resource and the industry by designating large sensitive habitat areas without the advantage of verification. Unlike ungulates in the Serengeti or in portions of the great northern plains in the US, wildlife species in NM rarely travel across large landscapes, but are more likely to use smaller, narrower corridors. Knowledge of where these corridors occur can help avoid or minimize the impacts from energy development. Therefore, it is essential that funding of field data collection be required of utility and energy companies in the planning of future transmission to maintain landscape permeability for wildlife and ensure the viability of NM’s rich biodiversity.
Pete David is a senior project manager at SWCA Environmental Consultants, author of Mother Nature’s Son, and a member of New Mexico Wildways. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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